The Arkansas Razorbacks snapped out of their funk last week with back-to-back Southeastern Conference victories over Missouri and then No. 12 LSU.
At 6 p.m. Tuesday the Hogs are aiming for three in a row when the South Carolina Gamecocks visit Walton Arena.
The contest will be the Hogs’ first with students back on campus after Christmas break and should feature a raucous crowd for the first time this year with the Hogs coming off their first NCAA Quad 1 victory of the season, thanks to their upset of the Tigers, 65-58, at Baton Rouge, La. That win came on the heels of Arkansas’ 87-43 shellacking of Missouri last Wednesday at home.
Next up for the Razorbacks
Opponent: vs. South Carolina
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 18
Where: Bud Walton Arena
TV: SEC Network
Next 5 games
Jan. 22 – Texas A&M, 7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)
Jan. 22 – at Ole Miss, 6 p.m. (SEC Network)
Jan. 29 – West Virginia, 1 p.m. (ESPN2/U)
Feb. 5 – at Georgia, 6 p.m. (SEC Network)
Feb. 5 – Mississippi State, 7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)
The Razorbacks (12-5, 2-3 SEC) would even up their conference record with a victory over South Carolina (10-6, 1-3) and be on a mini-winning streak after losing five of their previous six games, including their first three SEC contests.
Arkansas’ resurgence comes at a good time with four of their next six games in Walton Arena. Should the Hogs keep winning Tuesday, it will be the second win with assistant Keith Smart acting as interim head coach. Smart joined Arkansas’ staff in June, after spending 22 years coaching at the NBA level.
Razorback head coach Eric Musselman underwent surgery last Thursday to repair the rotator cuff of his left shoulder, which he injured in a collision with forward Trey Wade in practice in early December. On the day of the surgery, the UA announced that Musselman would miss at least two games before attempting to return to the helm of the team.
“For two-and-a-half games prior to the Missouri game, we had played some good basketball,” said Smart, said. “We just couldn’t come away with the win. You saw some growth taking place with this team, we just couldn’t get the win. At some point, you just keep grinding.
“You keep grinding and eventually you get to the point where you find a way to win big. Then you win big on the road, which keeps confidence building.”
Smart, who has NBA and CBA head coaching experience, did a fine job in managing the Hogs’ play in the road contest held in his home town of Baton Rouge. His NBA experience showed up when he called two second-half timeouts to settle down the Razorbacks after momentum-shifting plays by the Tigers.
The Hogs bounced back in each instance to keep the game tight and played excellent defense against LSU down the stretch. The Hogs made key baskets when the opportunity arose. During their recent struggles Arkansas had trouble accomplishing either.
Guard JD Notae and power forward Jaylin Williams each canned big 3-point shots in the game’s waning moments to put the Hogs in a position to win.
Notae is the co-scoring leader in the SEC with Vanderbilt’s Scotty Pippen Jr. at 18.8 points per game. After struggling early with foul problems, he played the final nine minutes of the game with four fouls, scoring 19 points and dishing out four assists. His two 3-pointers down the stretch gave the Hogs momentum to pull off their biggest win of the season.
Smart was proud of how well the guard performed as a scorer and a table-setter for his teammates.
“From an offensive standpoint, JD has the ability to shoot the 3-ball, to get to the mid area, and also get and finish at the rim with both right hand and left hand,” Smart said. “And that’s pretty good for a player.
“We’ve also got him playing more point guard. Now we’ve just got to keep working with him on vision. ‘What do you see when you go to certain areas? You can’t always be thinking it’s going to just be JD, you have to also make plays for your teammates.”
Smart explained that the staff wants Notae to be on the attack, but to play smart and keep the floor spread to also create options to feed cutters to the rim.
“It’s a development habit for him,” Smart said. “What we do in our drills everyday … to get him to see things on the floor. Invite the [defensive] switch, back it out and go when you’re ready to go for yourself or for a teammate. And that’s what he’s done.”
Williams, who sank a big 3-pointer at the top of the key, recorded his third double-double in a row with 11 points and 13 rebounds. The heady and talented 6-10 forward also drew four fouls against LSU’s aggressive squad and made 3 steals and an assist.
Arkansas made the key offensive plays it needed late, but the Razorbacks’ improved team defensive effort was the difference in the ballgame. The Hogs frustrated the Tigers all afternoon by playing disciplined defense, forcing LSU’s best players to their off side, and rebounding with an intensity this squad has rarely shown this season.
The Hogs outrebounded the Tigers, 41-31, which was the key to the game. While Williams led the way on the glass, Devo Davis gathered 8 rebounds, Stanley Umude had 6, and Au’Diese Toney had 4.
“Guys start being in position where they’re supposed to be, guys going to block out,” Smart said. “We say to block out when you’re on the perimeter. You don’t go into the paint to rebound, you go to the elbow ready to chase a ball down or block a guy out from there. Shot goes up, you step to your guy first, you seek him and then you box him out. I think all of that stuff started coming together for us. We hope that this team can continue to do that.”
Coach Frank Martin’s Gamecocks are coming off a 71-63 home loss to Florida last weekend. Martin didn’t like his squad’s passive play or their thought process in the contest.
“When we’re in the open court and have a chance to go to the rim, we don’t,” Martin said to the Associated Press. “Then we’re in half-court basketball and [6-11 Florida center Colin] Castleton’s standing under the rim, these guards want to go in and shoot finger-rolls into his armpits.
“People think bad shots are step-back 3s, (but) when you drive the ball and you’re a non-dunker and the 7-footer is standing under the net waiting for you and you try to shoot it over him, that’s a bad shot.”
The Gamecocks are balanced offensively with Wichita State transfer Erik Stevenson leading the in scoring with 11.3 point per game, followed by James Reese with 10, Leveque Wildens with 9.5, Jermaine Couisnard with 9.4, Devin Carter with 8.2 and Keyshawn Bryant with 7.2 ppg. Wildens leads South Carolina in rebounding with 5.9 rebounds per game.
“They can go small at times,” Smart said of Martin’s squad. “They have a lot of guys who can create shots. When they go big, they like to get to the glass. They have a flyer in Keyshawn Bryant, who plays on the perimeter but any time there is a shot he really goes after it.”
Smart said the keys against South Carolina are no different than in any other game.
“We have to rebound the ball,” he said. “Go to the boards. We have to take care of the basketball and not give them easy opportunities to score…
“We have to concentrate on what we have to get done. We have a team coming in here desperate, with their back against the wall. If we don’t go out there and try to impose our will on the game, we could allow this team to play with us or even beat us.”
A week ago, the Razorbacks were the desperate team. With two wins under their belt and a favorable stretch over the next half dozen games, this is no time for the Hogs to get comfortable.
This is the point in the season for the Hogs to strain to play more together on both ends of the floor.